Merchant account

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A merchant account is a type of bank account that allows businesses to accept payments by payment cards, typically debit or credit cards. A merchant account is established under an agreement between an acceptor and a merchant acquiring bank for the settlement of payment card transactions. In some cases a payment processor, independent sales organization (ISO), or member service provider (MSP) is also a party to the merchant agreement. Whether a merchant enters into a merchant agreement directly with an acquiring bank or through an aggregator such as PayPal, the agreement contractually binds the merchant to obey the operating regulations established by the card associations.

Methods of processing credit cards[edit]

Today a majority of credit card transactions are sent electronically to merchant processing banks for authorization, capture and deposit. Various methods exist for presenting a credit card sale to "the system." In all circumstances either the entire magnetic strip is read by a swipe through a credit card terminal/reader, a computer chip is read, or the credit card information is manually entered into a credit card terminal, a computer or website. The earliest methods, submitting credit card slips to a merchant processing bank by mail, or by accessing an Automated Response Unit (ARU) by telephone, are still in use today but have long been overshadowed by electronic devices. These early methods used two-part forms and a manual device for mechanically imprinting the embossed card number information onto the forms.

Credit card terminal[edit]

A typical credit card terminal popular in 2005, now typically out of use and of a style/era usually non-compliant per PCI-DSS standards.

A credit card terminal is a stand-alone piece of electronic equipment that allows a merchant to swipe or key-enter a credit card's information as well as additional information required to process a credit card transaction. A credit card terminal is a dedicated piece of equipment that only processes credit cards although it is common for related transactions including gift cards and check verification to also be performed. A credit card terminal typically must be plugged into a power supply and connected to a telephone line. However, some terminals may be powered by batteries and communicate over the Internet or through a cellular phone data network. When a credit card is processed (either swiped through the magnetic stripe reader or keyed into the keypad), it contacts the network to verify if the credit card can be authorized. The transaction is then stored on the machine until the polling window is opened. The machine will either upload the electronic funds directly to the merchant bank, or a polling service provider will dial in to collect, process then submit the data to the merchant bank. The most popular credit card terminals consist of a modem, keypad, printer, magnetic stripe reader, power supply and memory card. They have had the same basic design since the 1980s. As with computers, there is a wide range of memory capacities and other features like built-in printers and debit card pinpads that affect the manufacturing cost of a credit card terminal.

Automated Response Unit (ARU)[edit]

An ARU (also known as a voice authorization, capture and deposit) allows the manual keyed entry and subsequent authorization of a credit card over a cellular or land-line telephone. With this method a merchant typically imprints their customer's card with an imprinter to create a customer receipt and merchant copy, then process the transaction instantaneously over the phone.

Payment gateway[edit]

A payment gateway is an e-commerce service that authorizes payments for e-businesses and online retailers. It is the equivalent of a physical POS (point-of-sale) terminal located in most retail outlets. A merchant account provider is typically a separate company from the payment gateway. Some merchant account providers have their own payment gateways but the majority of companies use 3rd party payment gateways. The gateway usually has 2 components: a) the virtual terminal that can allow for a merchant to securely login and key in credit card numbers or b) have the website's shopping-cart connect to the gateway via an API to allow for real time processing from the merchant's website.

Level 2 or Level 3 Processing - Purchasing Cards[edit]

Visa and Mastercard have created a specialized type of credit card used primarily by government agencies and businesses. Increasingly, corporations and government agencies are relying on this form of payment to compensate their service providers and suppliers. Businesses benefit by receiving their funds quickly and by winning competitive bids and government contracts where purchasing cards are the required form of payment. The downside, however, is the increased costs associated with receiving these payments. These costs will usually be much higher than accepting a standard consumer credit card.

The solution is that some businesses may qualify for ways to process these transactions that allow them to pay lower fees if they can supply additional information, called "level 2 or level 3 data". For example, if government transactions are over $5,000, businesses can significantly reduce their transaction costs by including "level 2 or level 3 data" about the purchase along with each transaction. Examples of level 2 or level 3 data is a purchase order number associated with the transaction that the credit card will be paying. This data is passed on to the purchaser so that it may be many times easier to reconcile the transaction. If all the required data is not collected and passed on during the transaction, the merchant can have surcharges added to the basic fees or be forced into a non qualified transaction category.

Merchant Account Marketing[edit]

Merchant accounts are marketed to merchants by two basic methods: either directly by the processor or sponsoring bank, or by an authorized agent for the bank and additionally directly registered with both Visa and MasterCard as an ISO/MSP (Independent Selling Organization / Member Service Provider). Marketing details are by card issuers like Visa and MasterCard, and are enforced by various rules and fines. A few of the largest processors also partner with warehouse clubs to promote merchant accounts to their business members.

Marketing by Banks[edit]

A bank that has a merchant processing relationship with Visa and Mastercard, also known as a member bank, can issue merchant accounts directly to merchants. To reduce risk, some banks limit approval to merchants in its geographical area, those with a physical retail storefront, or those that have been in business for 2 years or more.

Marketing by Independent Sales Organization (ISO)/MSPs[edit]

To market merchant accounts, an ISO/MSP must be sponsored by a member bank. This sponsorship requires that the bank verify the financial stability and suitability of the company that will be marketing on its behalf. The ISO/MSP must also pay a fee to be registered with Visa and Mastercard and must comply with regulations in how they may market merchant accounts and the use of copyrights of Visa and Mastercard. One way to verify if an ISO/MSP is in compliance is to check a website or any other marketing material for a disclosure "company is a registered ISO/MSP of bank, town, state. FDIC insured". This disclosure is required by both Visa and Mastercard and will cause a fine of up to $25,000 if it is not clearly visible. In almost all cases, if there is no disclosure, the company is likely to be an uninformed 4th party or worse. In many cases unregistered operators have been responsible for some of the worst horror stories from merchants.[citation needed]

Rates and fees[edit]

A Merchant Account has a variety of fees, some periodic, others charged on a per-item or percentage basis. Some fees are set by the merchant account provider, but the majority of the per-item and percentage fees are passed through the merchant account provider to the credit card issuing bank according to a schedule of rates called interchange fees, which are set by Visa, Discover, and Mastercard. Interchange fees vary depending on card type and the circumstances of the transaction. For example, if a transaction is made by swiping a card through a credit card terminal it will be in a different category than if it were keyed in manually.

Discount Rates[edit]

The discount rate comprises a number of dues, fees, assessments, network charges and mark-ups merchants are required to pay for accepting credit and debit cards, the largest of which by far is the Interchange fee. Each bank or ISO/MSP has real costs in addition to the wholesale interchange fees, and creates profit by adding a mark-up to all the fees mentioned above. There are a number of price models banks and ISOs/MSPs used to bill merchants for the services rendered. Here are the more popular price models:

3-Tier Pricing[edit]

The 3-Tier Pricing is the most popular pricing method and the simplest system for most merchants to understand, if not the most transparent. The newer 6-Tier Pricing, including additional tiers covering debit, business, or international cards is gaining in popularity. In 3-Tier Pricing, the merchant account provider groups the transactions into 3 groups (tiers) and assigns a rate to each tier based on a criterion established for each tier. A possible drawback from the merchant's perspective, is that these "tiers" or "buckets" are variable from one processor to the next prohibiting any direct comparison from a Tier 1 provided by one provider to a Tier 1 provided by another provider.

First Tier - Qualified Rate[edit]

A qualified rate is the percentage rate a merchant will be charged whenever they accept a regular consumer credit card and process it in a manner defined as "standard" by their merchant account provider using an approved credit card processing solution. This is usually the lowest rate a merchant will incur when accepting a credit card. The qualified rate is also the rate commonly quoted to a merchant when they inquire about pricing. The qualified rate is created based on the way a merchant will be accepting a majority of their credit cards. For example, for an internet merchant, the internet interchange categories will be defined as Qualified, while for a physical retailer only transactions swiped through or read by their terminal in an ordinary manner will be defined as Qualified.

Second Tier - Mid-qualified Rate[edit]

Also known as a partially qualified rate, the mid-qualified rate is the percentage rate a merchant will be charged whenever they accept a credit card that does not qualify for the lowest rate (the qualified rate). This may happen for several reasons such as:

  • A consumer credit card is keyed into a credit card terminal instead of being swiped
  • A special kind of credit card is used like a rewards card or business card

A mid-qualified rate is higher than a qualified rate. Some of the transactions that are usually grouped into the Mid-Qualified Tier can cost the provider more in interchange costs, so the merchant account providers do make a markup on these rates.

The use of "rewards cards" can be as high as 40% of transactions. So it is important that the financial impact of this fee be understood.

Third Tier - Non-qualified Rate[edit]

The non-qualified rate is usually the highest percentage rate a merchant will be charged whenever they accept a credit card. In most cases all transactions that are not qualified or mid-qualified will fall to this rate. This may happen for several reasons such as:

  • A consumer credit card is keyed into a credit card terminal instead of being swiped and address verification is not performed
  • A special kind of credit card is used like a business card and all required fields are not entered
  • A merchant does not settle their daily batch within the allotted time frame, usually past 48 hours from time of authorization.

A non-qualified rate can be significantly higher than a qualified rate and can cost the provider much more in interchange costs, so the merchant account providers do make a markup on these rates.

6-Tier Pricing[edit]

As a result of the Wal-Mart Settlement and to compete against PIN-based debit cards (which are processed outside of the Visa and Mastercard networks), Visa and Mastercard lowered the interchange rates for debit cards well below those for credit cards. Some providers can pass on the lower cost of these cards directly to merchants. Consequently, the 3 tiers programs have added 2 classifications for debit cards that are processed without a PIN or with a PIN for a total of 6 rate classifications.

Interchange Plus Pricing[edit]

Some providers offer merchant account services priced on an "interchange plus" basis. These accounts are based on the "interchange" tables published by both Visa Visa Interchange and MasterCard MasterCard Interchange. This type of pricing creates a discount rate by adding interchange rates plus a percentage and authorization fees. This is a common pricing model for very low and very high average tickets.

Bill Back/ERR (Enhanced Recover Reduced)[edit]

A bill back/ERR is a variation on interchange plus pricing. It has some variations but the basic concept is that the merchant pays one set rate for qualified cards then is billed back for mid or non qualified cards. Merchants will be charged the qualified rate for all of their transactions. Then, for the transactions that are mid or non qualified, merchants will be charged again for the difference of the qualified rate (the rate they already paid) and the interchange rate (cost) plus a surcharge. There are two reasons this is called bill back. You are billed one rate and then billed back another. Also because you will typically see the surcharges on the next month's statement. It requires a great deal of time to research the actual cost per transaction with the bill back system.

Example of BILLBACK/ERR: Bill Back pricing: 1.75% + 0.50% surcharge

If you ran $1000 and you keyed in a regular credit card, that charge is now considered mid qualified because you did not swipe it. Interchange for a keyed credit card is 1.8%. The difference of the interchange plus the surcharge is 0.55%. Below is how it would look on your bill.

$1000 X 1.75%= $17.50
$1000 X 0.55%= $5.50
TOTAL= $23.00

Authorization fee[edit]

The Authorization fee (actually an authorization request fee) is charged each time a transaction is sent to the card-issuing bank to be authorized. The fee applies whether or not the request is approved. Note this is not the same as Transaction fee.

Transaction fee[edit]

The Transaction fee is charged when you accept your authorization. This fee only applies to an authorization that is accepted without error.

Statement fee[edit]

The statement fee is a monthly fee associated with the monthly statement that is sent to the merchant at the end of each monthly processing cycle. This statement shows how much processing was done by the merchant during the month and what fees were incurred as a result.

Many times, the statement fee is not directly linked to "paper" statements but rather general overhead. This means that a provider would not waive this fee if a merchant chose to have a "paperless" statement.

Monthly minimum fee[edit]

The monthly minimum fee is a way to ensure that merchants pay a minimum amount in fees each month to cover costs from the provider to maintain the account. If a merchant's fees do not equal or exceed the monthly minimum they will be charged the difference up to the monthly minimum.
Example: A merchant has signed a contract with a $25.00 monthly minimum fee. If all the fees for the most recent month of processing total (CLARITY: this is only for processing costs, so it does not include monthly fees, chargeback fees, etc.) only $15.00, this merchant will be charged an additional $10.00 to meet their monthly minimum requirements. Sometimes there are fees that are charged that are not a part of the monthly minimum, such as statement fees. It is industry standard to charge a monthly minimum, though not all acquirers charge this, nor do all that do charge it for every agreement.

Batch fee[edit]

A batch fee (also known as a batch header fee) can be charged to a merchant whenever the merchant "settles" their terminal. Settling a terminal, also known as "batching", is when a merchant sends their completed transactions for the day to their acquiring bank for payment. Some providers perform this automatically. It is important to close a batch every 24 hours or a higher rate will be assessed by Visa, Discover or Mastercard. The term "batch header" originally came from processing pre-electronic terminal era, when each batch of credit card receipts was turned into the merchant's local bank for deposit. The batch header was a mini report summarizing those receipts bundled within.

Customer Service fee[edit]

The customer service fee (also known as a maintenance fee) can be charged by some providers to pay for the cost of customer service. Also referred to as a "merchant support fee", "customer support fee", or simply, "service fee" by some merchant providers.

Annual fee[edit]

The Annual fee can be charged by some providers to pay for costs of maintaining the merchant's account. Sometimes these fees can be quarterly. The fee can be from $79–$399.

Early Termination fee[edit]

The early termination fee can be charged by some providers if the merchant ends the contract before the end of the contract term. While contract terms of 1–3 years are typical, some providers have terms of up to 5 years with a one year prior notice to cancel or the fee will be assessed. Some providers also assess all statement fees and monthly minimums remaining when the contract is terminated. Some providers may also assess a "lost profit" fee based on an assumption of profits they concluded they would have earned during the full term of the contract.

Chargeback fee[edit]

The chargeback is the largest risk that is presented to banks and providers. This is not to be confused with a refund, which is simply a merchant refunding a transaction. In the Visa, Discover, and Mastercard rules, the merchant's processing bank is 100% responsible for all the transactions that the merchant performs. This can leave the provider open to millions of dollars of potential losses if the merchant operates in an illegal or risky manner and generates many chargebacks. The providers pass this cost on to the merchant, but if the merchant is fraudulent or simply does not have the money, the provider must pay all the costs to make the card holder whole. The chargeback risk is the largest part taken into consideration during the contract application and underwriting process. Some banks are much more stringent than others when assessing a merchant's chargeback risk.

If a merchant encounters a chargeback they may be assessed a fee by their acquiring bank. A potential chargeback is presented on behalf of the card holder's bank to the merchant's credit card processing bank. A reason code is established by the card issuer to properly identify the type of potential chargeback based on the card holder's complaint. The most common complaint is that the card holder can not remember the transaction. Usually, these potential chargebacks are corrected when the merchant's processing bank sends over more details about the transaction. Some providers charge a fee for this service, known as a "Retrieval Request". A chargeback can also be related to a fraud or similar dispute that the card holder is claiming to the merchant. This fee can be charged by some providers whether the chargeback is successful or not and is not dependent on the amount of the chargeback.

Currently both Visa and Mastercard require all merchants to maintain no more than 1% of dollar volume processed to be chargebacks. If the percentage goes above, there are fines starting at $5000 – $25,000 to the merchant's processing bank and ultimately passed on to the merchant.

In all cases, a chargeback will cost the merchant the chargeback fee, typically $15–$30, plus the cost of the transaction and the amount processed.

The Durbin Amendment[edit]

On October 1, 2011, new rules go into effect that lower the debit card interchange fees the Visa and MasterCard networks charge merchants.

The changes — resulting from Durbin Amendment passed in year 2011 as part of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — would appear to be a plus for merchants. But are they?

At issue are the so-called “swipe” fees passed along to businesses as part of their credit card processing agreement with their merchant services provider. Interchange fees were originally imposed by the credit card networks to offset their costs of fraud prevention and processing the transaction.

Swipe fees vary depending on the type of card used in a transaction (credit, debit, prepaid) and the merchant; typically, larger merchants have more negotiating power when it comes to fees than smaller merchants.

Prior to the implementation of the Durbin Amendment, the swipe fee for a debit card transaction averaged 44 cents. Under Durbin, the Federal Reserve has set a cap of .05% + 21 cents per transaction (22 cents if the card has security features). (It is important to note that the new rules apply only to Visa and MasterCard debit cards — not credit cards — and only to card issuing banks with more than $10 billion in total assets.)

Card processing costs are often a merchant’s second highest expense after labor, so lower swipe fees for debit cards should be a welcome development, particularly as the cards have grown in popularity with consumers, surpassing both checks and credit cards. Debit card transactions in the U.S. totaled 25 billion in 2006; by 2009, the number had reached 38 billion.

Issuing banks like debit cards because they’re profitable, generating $16 billion in transaction fees in 2009 alone. To make up for the anticipated loss in revenue from the lower swipe fees, many banks have begun tacking on new checking account fees, raising minimum balance requirements and have threatened to cap the dollar amount for debit transactions and end debit card rewards programs. At the same time, banks are trying to renew customer interest in more profitable credit cards and prepaid debit cards with offers of low interest and rewards bonuses.

So, what’s the bottom line for merchants? It depends, to a large degree, on how customers react over the next year or so. If they stick with paying for their purchases with a PIN-based debit card, merchants should come out ahead because those transactions incur a lower swipe fee. If they pay with a credit card, the interchange fee is calculated as a percentage of the sale (usually about 2%), which can quickly exceed the capped 21 cent swipe fee they’d be charged for the same transaction on a debit card.

Terms to know[edit]

Following are some useful definitions that pertain to pricing merchant transactions:

Basis Point: 1/100 of a percentage point. The term is used to describe discount rates, which are the bulk of card processing fees paid by merchants.

Discount Rate: includes fees, dues, assessments, markups and network charges merchants must pay for accepting credit and debit cards. Interchange is the discount rate's largest component.

Interchange: the fee paid to the card issuing bank by the card acquiring bank by way of the card brands. Interchange rates vary widely based on card type, transaction amount, risks and retail sector. Interchange is assessed on all Visa Inc.- and MasterCard Worldwide-branded credit and debit cards.

Mid-Qualified: the percentage rate merchants are charged when accepting credit cards that do not meet qualified rate requirements. Also known as a partially qualified, the mid-qualified rate applies in such cases as when cards are keyed into terminals instead of swiped or if the cards are of a special type such as rewards cards.

Non-Qualified: often the highest percentage rate merchants are charged for accepting credit cards. In most cases, transactions that are neither qualified nor mid-qualified fall into this category. The bulk of these transactions are done with corporate cards.

Qualified: the percentage rate merchants are charged when they accept regular consumer credit cards and process them with an approved processing solution in a manner defined as standard by their merchant account providers. Qualified is typically the lowest rate merchants incur when accepting credit cards.

See also[edit]

References[edit]